Portraits of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attack by Hamas militants, in Tel Aviv on November 21, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

JERUSALEM: They marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They plastered photos of their missing children, sisters, cousins, partners on bus stops and buildings. They lobbied the Knesset, foreign diplomats and, eventually, the prime minister.

In media interviews, again and again, they relived the horror of discovering Hamas militants had dragged their relatives into Gaza —and the nightmarish days that ensued, when each Israeli airstrike in the enclave brought a fresh wave of fear.

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And by the early hours of the 47th day of war, the hostage families appear to have persuaded the Israeli government —initially reluctant to negotiate with an organisation it has vowed to annihilate — to agree to pause its assault on Gaza to bring some of their loved ones home.

The deal approved Wednesday would temporarily halt fighting in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the release of at least 50 women and children among the 240 hostages held inside the enclave. Each hostage would be traded for three Palestinian women or children held in Israeli prisons.

It’s not a done deal until it’s implemented, officials and analysts caution. Israeli leaders do not intend to start the pause in hostilities for 24 hours to give the Israeli Supreme Court time for deliberations and appeals. After that, Hamas will need to deliver the hostages safely to the Red Cross.

“We are always hoping, and then we are always disappointed,” said Yuli Ben Ami, 27, whose parents Raz and Ohad Ben Ami were abducted from Nir Oz, a kibbutz in southern Israel, on October 7. “We are always waiting for our parents to return.”

Still, the announcement in the early hours of Wednesday morning marked a major victory for the families and their supporters, whose grass-roots organising fixed the country’s attention on the plight of the hostages and the agony of relatives caught in a hellish limbo between hope and suspended grief.

The goal of obliterating Hamas — viewed as an existential threat — was paramount for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who “built his career on preaching how to fight terror,” according to political analyst and Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Aviv Bushinsky. Rule number one: “If you negotiate with terrorists, you reach the end and you’ll always pay the price.”

The issue is personal for the prime minister, whose brother was killed in a raid in Entebbe, Uganda, to free more than 100 people taken hostage by militants in the hijacking of a civilian flight from Israel to France in 1976.

For weeks, Netanyahu wouldn’t meet with the families as his right-wing government came under intense criticism for having failed to prevent the October 7 Hamas incursion, which left 1,200 dead in the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust.

Ever concerned about his political survival, Netanyahu probably sought to avoid a public confrontation, Bushinsky said

But the families made the fate of their loved ones impossible to ignore. Posters bearing the faces, names and ages of the hostages are everywhere in Israel, conveying the simple message: “Bring them home now!” Relatives laid a Shabbat dinner of empty chairs. They led thousands to protest in Tel Aviv.

Hostage Square

On November 17, Raz Ben Ami’s 57th birthday, Yuli and her sisters held a “big celebration” for their mother at the Tel Aviv intersection that has become known as Hostage Square.

Some relatives of hostages, including Nir Shani, whose 16-year-old son Amit was kidnapped from his bed in Nir Oz, traveled to the United States to plead their case. With nine Americans and one US permanent resident among those believed to be held by militants in Gaza, the Biden administration put growing pressure on Israel to agree to a hostage deal.

US citizen Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, was taken captive after losing an arm in the Hamas attack on a desert rave on October 7. Since then, his parents have spoken at the United Nations — and on Wednesday morning, to Pope Francis.

A presentation of 240 empty yellow chairs with the eyes of Israeli hostages, held by Hamas militants, outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in Tel Aviv, Israel on Nov. 22, 2023. Image Credit: Bloomberg

“We keep saying, my husband and I, ‘No stone unturned,’” his mother, Rachel Goldberg, said in a phone interview from Rome. “We’ll go anywhere we need to go and talk to anyone we need to talk to.”

For Goldberg, beyond the desire to see her son home safe, it’s an “international humanitarian issue,” with hostages representing some 30 different nationalities and ranging in age from 9 months to 87 years old. Families of captives from Thailand, Nepal and a range of other countries have joined Israelis in seeking information, media coaching and therapy at the headquarters of the Bring Them Home organization, set up in Tel Aviv by an “incredible group of very motivated, talented volunteers,” she said.

Captive for five years

In harrowing stories told to local and international press, of kids snatched from their homes and sleepless nights spent wondering if relatives were still alive, the families appealed to the pathos of a nation particularly sensitive to the plight of hostages.

“It’s so deep in Israeli DNA and the Israeli ethos, this sense of common destiny and solidarity and commitment to releasing hostages,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank.

The case of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas in 2006 and held for five years, captivated the nation, which broadly supported the 2011 deal that saw more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Shalit.

But the weeks dragged on without a deal and Israel airstrikes pummeled Gaza before the army then launched a ground invasion in late October that has seen it take over much of the enclave’s north.

Israeli attacks had killed more than 11,100 Palestinians in Gaza —many of them women and children — as of November 10, when the Gaza Health Ministry stopped counting the dead due to a breakdown in communications.

As casualties climb, and displacement and deprivation cause immense suffering among Gaza’s civilian population, international calls have grown for a cease-fire - or at least a temporary pause in the fighting to deliver more humanitarian aid into the besieged enclave.

Hostage families ramped up their activism over the past week, escalating the pressure. They completed a five-day march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem over the weekend, demanding the government do more to secure their relatives’ release. On Monday, Netanyahu finally met with a large group of them, probably caving “because of the pressure,” Bushinsky said.

Shift in public opinion

“It’s not that Netanyahu led the country into this deal,” he said. “Netanyahu was led into this deal. Knowing Netanyahu, he would prefer not to do the deal, and to crush Hamas and bring it to an end.”

But a shift in public opinion, and the backing of leaders of Israel’s security establishment, seem to have finally convinced Netanyahu the agreement would be politically palatable.

In the days after October 7, “the main reaction was we need to retaliate and dismantle Hamas,” Plesner said. “As time progressed, there was a realization, okay, there were terrible losses, we need to bring about the change of removal of Hamas - but there is this humongous unfolding tragedy of families whose loved ones are still in captivity. And so there was growing room for empathy and realization that this is an open wound and not something that ended on October 7.”

Polling by the Israel Democracy Institute over several weeks shows a notable jump in the proportion of the public surveyed who said Israel should negotiate with Hamas for the release of kidnapped Israelis: 59 per cent in early November, compared to 45 per cent in mid-October. (Still, according to the poll, a third of Israelis said the government shouldn’t negotiate with Hamas either ever or until the war is over.)

A shouting match on Monday between hostage families and Netanyahu’s far-right allies in the Knesset - staunchly opposed to any talks with Hamas - drew the ire of pundits in Hebrew media. Meanwhile, leaders of the defence and security establishment in Netanyahu’s war cabinet lined up in support of a hostage deal, giving Netanyahu further political cover to sign off, Bushinsky said.

Wednesday’s agreement, focused on women and children, is unlikely to bring about the release of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, the US citizen taken at the rave. “Any sort of excitement and celebration is very premature,” Goldberg said. “Everybody knows that things are very fragile and delicate.”

She continues to pray for her son’s release, she said. As they wait, the hostage families are “trying our best to support each other.”

“We’re a broken population,” Goldberg said. “But sometimes, when there are enough broken people, together they can rise.”